Ever Green

By Lois Taylor

Friday, January 9, 1998

Birds and bees do it for the flowers

From "Sex in Your Garden"

A new book, "Sex in Your Garden," puts a sexy slant on plant propagation

DO you have any idea of the X-rated stuff going on in your garden? Well, Angela Overy does, and we'll get back to that name in a minute. Overy has written a book titled "Sex in Your Garden," and she isn't referring to hanky-panky on a beach mat. Her book is a light-hearted study of the reproductive processes of garden plants and their relationship to their various propagators. It's about the birds and the bees. Overy maintains that if you know how your plants propagate and what the propagator is, you will have a healthier garden.

Overy, who was born in England and now lives in Denver, will present her slide lecture on "Sex in Your Garden" Wednesday at the Honolulu Academy of Arts theater.

In a recent interview at the Denver Botanic Gardens where she teaches botanic illustration, she explained why she wrote the book. "I've been teaching at the garden since 1980, teaching students how to draw flowers by taking them apart. This is the female and that is the male," I would explain, and they thought I was teasing.

"They had no idea that plants could reproduce sexually. Flowers are the reproductive organs of plants. Plants need sexual partners, and their striving to attract them can be compared to human courtship."

Any horticultural text, she added, will have this information, but it is presented in such a dull, pedantic way that many readers will yawn and put the book down. So Overy, who worked in advertising design in London, New York and San Francisco before settling in Denver, explains it all with gorgeous photographs and lucid, entertaining prose.

"With my advertising background, I looked at the way people advertised themselves or their product, and realized that there were similar instincts among people and plants. So in order to explain about plants, I related it to what people were familiar with," she said. Practically everybody knows about sex.

"Suppose you live in a world where you have to be bigger or more beautiful than your neighbor to attract a mate, where rivals offer free parking and fast food to their lovers and disreputable opportunists offer nothing at all, but lure partners with false promises and murder them.

"Imagine that your paramour lives across the street but you can't get together, so you pay an intermediary. Imagine being male or female for a while and then switching to the opposite sex? This may all sound like supermarket tabloid sensationalism, but it happens every day. It is the sex in your garden."

In the grand scheme of things, says Overy, flowers are a recent invention. "Fossil record show that 250 million years ago there were many plants but no flowers. Ancient spore and cone-bearing plants, like ferns and pines, reproduced with the help of wind and water, just as their descendants do today."

Then along came a new order of plants called angiosperms, which may have started with a few leaves oozing sticky excess carbohydrates. Insects were attracted, and gradually the first flowers formed around the plant's reproductive organs. The flowering angiosperms have developed into thousands of brilliantly different varieties.

"While this was happening, some flying insects like bees, butterflies and moths grew to rely on the flowers for nourishment, and they specialized, growing such features as extra-long tongues to reach the food and meshing their life cycles to match those of the plants that suited them. The codependency is so complete that one cannot live without the other."

And this codependency is the commercial in the former advertising executive's message. We need diversity in plants, insects and birds. "Many plants reproduce through pollinators, and some are disappearing. You can't preserve plants in a vacuum. But people's eyes glaze over when you start to talk about preservation of species. So I looked for a snappier way to involve the reader.

"A generation ago we had the excuse, 'We didn't know,' as we sprayed insects and chopped down bird habitats, but now we do. We need to become more aware of interdependencies."

But birds and bugs are not among the brightest creatures, so it is up to the plant to advertise, to let the pollinator know that it's there. "Nearly all pollinators fly so their first impression of a plant is from a distance," Overy said. "As they look down on the various shades of green, other colors attract their attention and let the pollinator know that the plant is in flower."

By watching which colored blossoms attract which insects, their color preferences have been determined. According to Overy, bees prefer yellow, blue, purple and ultraviolet flowers and butterflies like red, orange, yellow and pink. But flies are wild about green, lime, white and cream, so you might want to steer clear of those shades.

After color, the next most important lure a flower can offer is fragrance. Most insects have a more highly defined sense of smell than we do. Think how quickly wasps gather at a picnic. "Promiscuous flowers, those that encourage many different kinds of insects, tend to give off generic, sweet, light odors that are appealing to a wide range of pollinators. More selective flowers scent the air with their own distinctive fragrance," Overy said. There's a lot of lechery going on in your garden.

And now about the name that seems so appropriate to the subject of sex;. "Overy is a relatively common name in England," she explained. "It refers to people who ferried other people over a river. People think it's funny, and even more so for my husband, who is a doctor. But he's not a gynecologist - that would really be too much."

Sex in Your Garden: Slide lecture by Angela Overy, 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, Honolulu Academy of Arts theater.Admission: $5. Call 988-7533.

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